Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Big Foot is actually a myth!

Yes, you have read correctly.  Rest easy, folks!  Once and for all, it has finally been determined that Bigfoot is indeed a myth.  As an enthusiast of Bigfoot hunters, my only hope is that I can do justice to this topic.

Cryptozoology is the study of animals whose existence is questionable, at best.  <http://www.paranormal-encyclopedia.com/c/cryptozoology/>  One thing I love about Bigfoot propaganda is that there is plenty of it to go around.  There are stories of Big Foot sightings all across the US and in plenty of other countries as well.  As somebody who has traveled and moved quite a bit, I can tell you that there is no shortage of these types of stories.  Bigfoot, also called a sasquatch in the North or a yeti in the eastern hemisphere, has multiple personas.  In the pine barrens of New England, the Jersey Devil is the dominating variety.  In the cypress swamps of the south, Bigfoot is known as a skunk ape.  

Those of us lucky enough to trek through the ‘glades are all too familiar with this menace.  Dave Shealy is a memorable character, hot on the skunk ape trail.  He considers himself to be the leading expert on the topic.  You can visit his Skunk Ape Research Headquarters and he’ll even take you on a private sighting tour.  Well, lots of people are crazy so where’s the science in this?  It turns out that an Oxford researcher has completed a three year study on the topic.  Better yet, this work has been published!

Collaboration between Bryan Sykes and his colleagues represents six prestigious organizations from five different countries.  Dr. Sykes is a professor of human genetics at Oxford University; he has worked on several notable studies and first published in Nature over 25 ago.  Their latest endeavor is that they are the first to perform a structured analysis of 30 “Bigfoot” hair samples collected from all over the world.  These DNA samples were genetically identified as bear, horse, cow, raccoon, sheep, dog, tapir, porcupine, and human… but none from Bigfoot.  

The Proceedings of the Royal Society is a peer reviewed, reputable journal that publishes research related to the biological sciences.  This well respected scientific journal has a 2013 impact factor of 5.3 and first quartile ranking in the biology, ecology, and evolution categories.  Jeffrey Kluger sarcastically covered this story in a TIME magazine article.  Kluger points out that additional coverage of this study in The Guardian and Associate Press doesn’t do much to curtail these unfounded beliefs.  

If you are like me, you may be wondering “who paid for this?!”  This project was funded by the producers of a UK television show called the Bigfoot Files.  Dr. Sykes personally thanks Harry Marshall, creative director of Icon Films, in his manuscript.  Sadly, not all Bigfoot enthusiasts are pleased by this “discovery.”  Matt Moneymaker, the founder and president of the Bigfoot Field Research Organization and host of a television series called Finding Bigfoot, is challenging the validity of this study.  He has described this study as “scientifically meaningless;” many samples were not included in the final analysis as they only contained a few hairs... “like MOST authentic bigfoot hair samples!”  

Bryan Sykes includes this disclosures statement in his manuscript: “While it is important to bear in mind that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and this survey cannot refute the existence of anomalous primates, neither has it found any evidence in support.”  Bryan Sykes is even quoted as saying “The fact that none of these samples turned out to be [Bigfoot] doesn’t mean the next one won’t."  This statement undermines the results of the study and gives new hope to mythical monster seekers around the world.  Not only do Oxford and the Royal Society validate this topic, so do top newspapers.  These types of affirmation encourage all supernatural beliefs in a way that is damaging to society.

Sumira Phatak

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Animals in Research.

When I first began my research project at Utah State University, I never expected the backlash I would soon receive.  As an avid animal lover, many of my former circles included like minded individuals.  We are the type of people who embrace our pets as family.  We support animal welfare causes and volunteer at humane societies.  When I chose to work in an animal research facility, I found myself in a bittersweet limelight.  I was thrilled about my new endeavor, but many of my friends were not quite so pleased.  

It was not long at all before the rumors started to emerge.  I started to receive random messages from friends inquiring “how the animal testing was going.”  I was suddenly having phone arguments with people I’ve known for a decade, about unrelated topics.  They were just so disappointed with my choice that there was nothing I could do to deflect the incessant attacks.  In their minds, I now spend my days torturing helpless animals in a dark, dingy dungeon.  All I could do is hope that with time, they will calm down and I will be able to explain what I am actually doing.  I will be able to explain why this type of work is so important, relevant, and necessary if only given the chance.  That time is now.

Animal activist groups love rallying people together with emotional photographs.  These types of photographs are intended to appeal to a wide audience.  We have all seen these types of animal testing photos.  Of course these images are upsetting; they are intended to appeal to the compassionate animal lover within most of us.  After increased awareness by activist groups like IAAPEA, PETA, and FoA, industrial testing has been greatly reduced.  It is now common to see a “not tested on animals” label on these types of products.  

Many alternatives to in vivo animal research are readily utilized.  In vitro research is performed in a controlled environment and usually pertains to cells grown in a petri dish.  Computer engineers have designed sophisticated modeling software that is used to make valid predictions.  Human volunteers are used for microdosing, neurological studies, and skinpatch testing.  We even have human simulators that are used for a variety of studies- everyone knows of the crash test dummy.

What these groups fail to share with the public, is that there are many different types of research involving animals and research alternatives do not always accurately represent the complex biological interactions in living organisms.  Basic research (e.g. physiology, embryology, and ethology) helps us understand the general structure, function, development, and behavior of biological organisms.  Applied research helps us understand the nature of disease, pharmaceuticals, transplants, and toxicology.  

Benefits of animal research are invaluable.  We perform cutting-edge surgical procedures that save lives everyday, including organ transplants, tumor removal, and emergency repair.  Advanced drug development has led to life-saving antibiotics, vaccines, anesthetics, and pharmaceuticals.  Currently we are able to prevent or treat a variety of illnesses, including: anthrax, leprosy, beriberi, pellagra, rickets, tetanus, pertussis, rheumatoid arthritis, streptomycin, diphtheria, poliomyelitis, rubella, measles, AIDS, Alzheimer's, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, and several types of cancer (just to name a few!).  Insulin is readily available to treat diabetes, one of the most prevalent diseases in Western societies.  We have pacemakers, cancer chemotherapy, joint replacements, and treatment for psychological conditions!  Thanks to animal research, smallpox has been eradicated worldwide for over 37 years!  Thanks to animal research, activists will be able to protest for 20.8 years longer!

This necessary research continues to benefit humans and other animals.  We have advanced care for rehabilitating injured animals.  We have developed improved nutrition and enrichment for animals living in captivity.  Those of us with cats and dogs annually vaccinate and protects our pets from diseases that are otherwise lethal: rabies, parvo, heartworm, distemper, rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, Chlamydophila, canine Adenovirus, Bordetella, lyme disease, and feline leukemia (just to name a few!).  We have made substantial advances in agriculture, including reducing stress during transport.  Pets, livestock, and animals in zoos live longer, more comfortable, and healthier lives as a result of animal research.

The mice in my study live in a temperature, humidity, and light cycle controlled facility that is designed to model an optimal native environment.  They have unlimited access to food and fresh water; cages are changed weekly and fresh corn cob bedding is supplied; nesting squares and bedding huts to provide enrichment.  Full time staff check on my mice several times a day (so do I) and we have immediate access to expert veterinary care, whenever needed.  We handle them gently and with care, in a way that minimizes stress.  To put it bluntly- my mice are living better than most people’s pets!  If you still aren't convinced, check out these 40 reasons why we need animals in research.  

Sumira Phatak